Drought drama

Jason Richardson: Eastern Riverina Arts, Basin

Haya Arzidin in Basin

Haya Arzidin in Basin

Basin is a play about a fictional town of that name where a man-made lake has been diminishing as a result of drought and an older town revealed as the water recedes—as happened in the Snowy Mountains town of Adaminaby when Lake Eucumbene evaporated during last decade’s drought such that the foundations of the old pre-dam town became visible. The imaginary Basin is also reminiscent of Lake Jindabyne, another dam site in the Snowy Mountains and the setting for a film (director Ray Lawrence, 2006) where the lake took on a menacing character, as the Australian landscape does in so many stories.

It’s neat that the title Basin refers to a fictional town but also a much bigger geographic area, such as the Murray Darling Basin. The fluid in this vessel is water, the subject given to the seven writers in this Eastern Riverina Arts project. Director Scott Howie’s set design reflects the writing with seven bowl-like basins circling the stage. In the middle sits an empty rowboat that unnerves the locals. At first it’s covered with a sheet as though unneeded during the drought but later used for a refugee to tell of her sea journey to Australia.

Basin is populated with a variety of characters reflecting the demography of regional Australia: mostly older people but with a new arrival, the refugee Lily who provides contrast and holds a metaphorical mirror up to the society. With slight adjustments to costumes—unbuttoning a shirt or adding a headscarf—and subtle changes of facial expression, the capable cast of three play multiple characters in stories more tragic than comic, including a number of deaths, caused not by drought but by drowning. The lowering of the lake’s water level triggers dark recollections. With set and seating positioned on the stage of the Wagga Wagga Regional Theatre, this touring production was intimate—the actors within a few metres of us and firmly in focus.

Stephen Holt, Virginia Anderson in Basin

Stephen Holt, Virginia Anderson in Basin

If you’ve ever lived in a country town, the difference from living in a city is the feeling that everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s through conversations that the stories of Basin are told—of old affairs, love denied, a suicide by drowning, another by accident—along with expressions of fear and admissions of feelings of guilt. Robert delivers Meals on Wheels to the older residents, Arnie and Patsy, who gossip about each other. Mary misses her drowned brother. Jacob, who talks to the lake, worries that this death was caused by the lake being insulted when dammed—not so crazy if you’ve seen prayers made public in periods of extended drought.

Eastern Riverina Arts’ CEO Officer Scott Howie developed the project with Newcastle-based playwright Vanessa Bates. “She had to develop a model which allowed for seven writers to write rather than sit around and talk about what to write,” he explained. “By the third workshop none of us really knew what the play was. Then Vanessa deftly explained a structure that fitted. There were pages and pages of writing left on the floor. The workshops included the writing of monologues, but once the characters started interacting, the writers had to let go a little of theirs and let the others write them.”

The ‘water’ theme was realised from various perspectives, but I wanted the lake to feature more strongly and with a more consistent character, like the landscape in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It would have made Basin more cogent. However, the short scenes resonated strongly, both for their dramatic impact and sense of authenticity. Six of the writers live in country towns and a couple of the names I recognised as published novelists. Basin defies the adage that “too many cooks spoil the broth” with a succinct and well-paced production that reveals concerns that lie beneath the surface of regional Australia.

After its eight-town tour of the the Riverina, Basin will next be performed in Dubbo at the Artlands 2016 National Regional Arts Conference and Festival, 27-30 October.

Stephen Holt, Haya Arzidin and Virginia Anderson in Basin

Stephen Holt, Haya Arzidin and Virginia Anderson in Basin

Eastern Riverina Arts, Basin, project playwright Vanessa Bates, writers Marty Boyle, Diana Lovett, David O’Sullivan, John Riddell, Sulari Gentill, Freda Marnie Nicholls, Craig Palmer, director, designer Scott Howie, performers Virginia Anderson, Haya Arzidin, Stephen Holt, lighting design Sophie Kurylowicz, sound design Dave Burraston, textiles Julie Montgarrett; Wagga Wagga Regional Theatre, 23 July

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016

© Jason Richardson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 August 2016